CRAIG CONLEY (Prof. Oddfellow) is recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation.” He has been called a “language fanatic” by Page Six gossip columnist Cindy Adams, a “cult hero” by Publisher’s Weekly, and “a true Renaissance man of the modern era, diving headfirst into comprehensive, open-minded study of realms obscured or merely obscure” by Clint Marsh. An eccentric scholar, Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time. He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan. His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size. Conley’s website is
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The Right Word

August 14, 2015 (permalink)

"God alone knows the power of an adjective, especially in new, tropical countries." —Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner

August 12, 2015 (permalink)

"Goativity," from Stock Designs of Book Division Inserts, 1922.

August 8, 2015 (permalink)

This is how to spell coyote.  From B. C. 1887: A Ramble in British Columbia by James Arthir Lees. 1888.

July 25, 2015 (permalink)

Here's one of those marvelous moments in which a sitcom character gains self-awareness, from the "Strong Stuff, This Insurance" episode of Are You Being Served?  Mrs. Slocombe, famous for saying things like, "Today's the day my pussy comes of age," tells a co-worker, "Everything you say is full of innuendo and double-entendre."

July 18, 2015 (permalink)

As we noted in the special one-letter words edition of The Shakespeare Papers (revealed here), R is the dog's letter.   Romeo and Juliet aside, we find a canine T in Outing magazine, 1885.

July 17, 2015 (permalink)

"He jests at scars who never felt a what-you-may-call-it." —Maurice Dolbier, Nowhere Near Everest: An Ascent to the Height of the Ridiculous

July 16, 2015 (permalink)

Here's a peek at Jim Girouard's forthcoming Journey into Eternity.  (Hear our clockwork remix of one of Jim's songs here.  Our coverage of his letter cube divination system is here.)

July 10, 2015 (permalink)

"Uh, uh-uh, uh-uh-uh, or uh-uh-uh-uh?"  From the "Fifty Years On" episode of Are You Being Served?  Yes, the illumined writers found a way to grunt one of the character's names for over four minutes (the grunts being placeholders in the "Happy Birthday" song for possible syllables of Mrs. Slocombe's unknown first name).  The scene transports us to the bizarre with typical British efficiency.

July 8, 2015 (permalink)

"Alackaday!"  From The Bashful Earthquake by Oliver Herford (1899).

July 6, 2015 (permalink)

We're delighted by these words from three-time Guinness Book of World Records holder Jeff McBride:

The text reads: "Hexopedia promotes a deliberately positive, universal message about empowering one’s communication skills for beneficial results.  The Hexopedia is expressly designed to foster treasured youthful experiences, inspiring a love of literacy and learning as it promotes intellectual growth through enchantment and entertainment."

July 2, 2015 (permalink)

The following is from our guest piece for magician Jeff McBride's Museletter:

The most controversial word that magicians use might very well be “laypeople.”  Its primary definition of course refers to a non-ordained member of a church, but that’s the least of the problem.  We might do well to consider whether the very idea of laypeople is an illusion in itself.   As a well-diplomaed philosopher, if my professor friend Larry chatted about the nature of reality with a stranger, that person wouldn’t strictly be a “layperson” but a fellow philosopher (even if to a lower “degree”).  

The very concept of a layperson might put up invisible walls that are more of a disservice to the magician than to his or her participants in wonder.  That’s because we all have specialized knowledge and experiences that others don’t, and if only we had a way of knowing how to communicate them, we’d all blow each other’s minds quite regularly.  Sure, a magician may know the secret of a particular card trick that the participant doesn’t, yet a participant may be well-practiced in some other operation or art equally difficult or requiring flair.  The participant may in fact know a card trick of his or her own, too, but not necessarily self-identify as a magician.  The word “layperson” literally means a non-expert person, and is that how we’d describe our audiences (at least on our better days)?

A passage in César Aira's novelette The Literary Conference feels apropos, in that it's about how unlikely it is for any two people on earth to have read even just two of the same books, and how the unlikelihood increases exponentially for three books and so on: 

An intellectual's uniqueness can be established by examining their combined readings.  How many people can there be in the world who have read these two books: The Philosophy of Life Experience by A. Bogdanov, and Faust by Estanislao del Campo?  Let us put aside, for the moment, any reflections these books might have provoked, how they resonated or were assimilated, all of which would necessarily be personal and nontransferable.  Let us instead turn to the raw fact of the two books themselves.  The concurrence of both in one reader is improbable, insofar as they belong to two distinct cultural environments and neither belongs to the canon of universal classics.  Even so, it is possible that one or two dozen intellectuals across a wide swathe of time and space might have taken in this twin nourishment.  As soon as we add a third book, however, let us say La Poussière de Soleil by Raymond Roussel, that number becomes drastically reduced.  If it is not 'one' (that is, I), it will come very close.  Perhaps it is 'two,' and I would have good reason to call the other 'mon semblable, mon frére.'  One more book, a fourth, and I could be absolutely certain of my solitude.  But I have not read four books; chance and curiosity have placed thousands in my hands.  And besides books, and without departing from the realm of culture, there are records, paintings, movies ...  All of that as well as the texture of my days and nights since the day I was born, gave me a mental configuration different from all others.  [p. 9]  

Indeed, every person has a unique mental configuration, meaning that we’re all fellow unlikelihoods, all brethren of wonder.  What if no one of us has ever technically met a “layperson”?  What would happen if a performer came on stage, looked at a sea of faces in the audience, and quoted Bob Neale about what an honor is it is to be in the presence of so many genuine magicians?  Even at a pro-magicians-only conference, given just how manymagics there are  (see Magic and Meaning by Eugene Burger and Robert E. Neale), who is technically ordained when there’s no one holy order, no one definition of kosher?  How does the concept of a “layperson” serve us?

As Bob Neale has expressed it: "I am a magician . . . and so are you.  We are all magicians—illusionists—who survive, take pleasure, and find meaning in life by means of the illusions we create.  I am here to remind you that such magic runs rampant in our lives and that this is a good thing."


Max Maven adds:

George Bernard Shaw, 1906: "Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity."


June 22, 2015 (permalink)

The quest to decode the individual letters in a name goes way, way back.  Our research triggered a realization that every name encodes an ancient Egypitan poem.  As the original publication of our findings is freshly out of print, and as it was originally intended exclusively for professional magicians and mentalists, we were inspired to offer a revised and expanded edition containing twice the number of example readings, so that anyone can perform the technique for friends.  No memory or guesswork is required.  You’ll understand the hidden Egyptian meaning of your name instantly, and you’ll be able to dramatically interpret friends’ names.  You don’t have to be a poet or expert on symbolism to shine with our technique.  You’ll simply say aloud what you secretly know the letters to mean.  Here are the details.

June 8, 2015 (permalink)

5x5 magic word squares are incredibly rare, with the Pompeiian Sator / Arepo / Tenet / Opera / Rotas being the best known by far.  (Futility Closet featured the Revel / Evere / Veoev / Ereve / Lever grid, which reads as a palindromic sentence though not as a magic square.)  But there are three other 5x5 word squares explained in The Young Wizard's Hexopedia, including this one: Balam / Avada / Labal / Adava / Malab.  Balam is a name for supernatural intuition, derived from the diviner called Balaam in the Torah.  Avada is an Estonian word that means "open."  Labal is the occult name for the revealer of all the mysteries of the Earth (described in The Lesser Key of Solomon).  Adava is a Marathi word for a winding road.  And Malab is a Somali word for honey, which is a code for "alchemical gold," which itself is a code for immortality.  Woven together into a grid, these words form a charm that conjures magic insight so as to reveal the mysterious pathway toward everlasting light.

June 1, 2015 (permalink)

May 29, 2015 (permalink)

As we see here, the word "hare" is properly followed by four squiggles, as if tracing a leaping gait.  Either a lower-case w or tilde symbol will suffice for typing.  From The Works of John Collier-Tim Bobbin in Prose and Verse, 1894.

May 6, 2015 (permalink)

There's so much weirdness about this page from Franzlations that is featured in issue #96 of Geist magazine.  Here are two of the weirdnesses, at random: 1. The page is hardly in the book, as it went missing in the drafts for a long while, and then nobody could remember why it was gone, so it was restored just moments before the book went to press.  2. Gary Barwin is here identified as Gary Baldwin, which (as one of those Garys noted) could be a sly allusion to Kafka's famous line "I have hardly anything in common with myself," and which also refers back to how Barwin's very first royalty cheque was made out to "Baldwin" and was not cashable.  Of course, if you take the "ld" of Baldwin, rotate them 90 degrees, and lean the l over, they become the capital R of Barwin.

"You have the toe-beganing—that must be nice."  Toe-beganing?  From An American Girl in London by Sara Jeanette Duncan, 1891.

May 4, 2015 (permalink)

Here's a random page from The Young Wizard's Hexopedia, our painstaking reconstruction of a tome that wasn't in the window display of a spooky old bookshop.  (See the very strange history of this book here.)

May 2, 2015 (permalink)

What's the most comfortable sleepwear for the world's second-largest country?  Just change three letters to find out:

May 1, 2015 (permalink)

How to Use a Magic Word as a Tarot Spread Template

(from our guest post at Thematic Tarot)

The great alchemist John Dee designed a protective magical talisman under the direction of the angel Uriel: crossed lines, a central circle, and the letters A, G, L, and A.  These letters constitute an acronym (also known as a kabbalistic "notariqon") of the unspeakable primordial name that was lost through the ages.  It's a well-kept secret that this talisman can serve as a revealing template for a four-card Tarot spread.  


The Hebraic words of the acronym are understood to be: Atah Gebur Le-olahm Adonai.  This sentence is translated many ways, but you'll see the underlying similarities:

  • "You reign for eternity, O Lord."
  • "Thou art mighty forever, O Lord."
  • "Thou art strong to eternity, Lord."
  • "Thou art mighty to the ages, amen."
  • "Thou art great forever, my Lord."
  • "Thine is the power throughout endless ages, O Lord."

(Interestingly, in the Middle Ages, Christians in Germany used AGLA as a talisman against fire, the letters standing as an acronym for a German sentence meaning, "Almighty God, extinguish the conflagration," as noted in The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion by Adele Berlin.) 

We'll explore three approaches to AGLA for purposes of Tarot spreads.  The simplest is based upon this interpretation of the Hebraic words: 

"You are strong through the ages, so be it."


The card placed upon "You" is, of course, the significator.  The card placed upon "Are Strong" refers to the querent's greatest strength.  The card placed upon "Through the Ages" refers to an ongoing issue that seems woven into the entire course of one's lifetime.  The card placed upon "So Be It" refers to a truth or certainty that one need not waste energy upon resisting.

Here's how such a reading might go.  Drawing cards from the Tarot of Portmeirion, we place the King of Wands on A, "You"; the Ace of Swords on G, "Are Strong"; the Empress on L, "Through the Ages"; and the High Priestess on A, "So Be It."  As the significator, the King of Wands depicts a golden Burmese statue of a dancer high atop a stone column, communicating artistic flair and confidently setting a glowing example far and wide.  As the symbol of strength, the Ace of Swords depicts a sea-beaten shaft of iron that has survived the cliffside structure it once supported, symbolizing a steadfast spirit undaunted by adversity.  As a symbol of the ages, the Empress depicts a statue of the Nordic all-mother Goddess Frigga (labeled "Frix" on the plinth).  Wielding a broken crossbow in her left hand and the hilt of a sword in the other, the Empress stands assuredly atop a limestone pedestal, head turned toward her right.  She is framed by greenery and overlooks a small fountain -- a popular wishing well -- establishing her as a heeder of prayers and granter of desires.  Her broken sword (presumably ruined over time) is of interest, as it symbolizes a firm grip on intention, free from lacerations.  Within the context of this spread, we can interpret the Ace of Swords as depicting the Empress' lost blade.  The "So Be It" High Priestess is a trompe l’oeil mermaid "sculpture" painted on sheet metal.  She sports two tails, symbolizing duality.  They curl up to suggest, along with her curved arms, a figure-eight/infinity shape.  The infinity shape is echoed in the dramatic curls of her hair.  Eyes closed, she cradles a large fish from whose mouth flows the water of the deep realm of the unconscious.  The High Priestess, framed by an archway, meditatively sits atop a sphere in a stone pavilion near a tollgate.  In terms of "So Be It," she indicates the wisdom of the inner voice during contemplative silence, the need for patience, and the importance of a deep understanding.

Unity-fruitfulness-perfect-cycle-synthesisAnother way to approach AGLA is explained in Eliphas Levi's The History of Magic.  Levi proposes that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, signifies unity; the letter Gimel, the third in the alphabet, signifies the triad and hence fruitfulness (as in two parents creating a third life); the letter Lamed signifies the perfect cycle; and the duplicated Aleph signifies synthesis.

Syllepsis-analysis-science-synthesisLevi offers a third way to understand AGLA: syllepsis, analysis, science, synthesis.

Syllepsis (from the Greek meaning "taking together") is a term of semantics and refers to a word or expression that is simultaneously figurative and literal.  It's a word that we can understand in two different ways at the same time.  But those two ways are bound together like two sides of the same coin, as the theorist Riffaterre has put it.  Whatever card is placed upon Syllepsis refers to something whose polar opposite we're overlooking, like what's embossed on the back of a coin.  In other words, there's an inescapable duality at play.  To find the bright side, look for the humor in this, because Syllepsis is a form of punning, a wordplay of double meanings.

The card placed upon Analysis refers to what needs to be examined in detail to determine its constituent elements or structure.  Analysis comes from the Greek word meaning to "unloose," so on the bright side this is something about which we can loosen up, quite literally.

The card placed upon Science refers to something that could benefit from discipline, observation, and experimentation.

The card placed upon Synthesis (from the Greek meaning to "place together") is a call to combine ideas into a theory or system.

Levi reminds us that "according to Kabalah, the perfect word is the word realised by acts."  Acting upon AGLA with Tarot cards can be a profound way to translate its knowledge into action and thereby understand its mysteries.

For more details about the talisman AGLA, see The Young Wizard's Hexopedia (pictured below) and Magic Words: A Dictionary.


—Craig Conley is author of The Young Wizard's Hexopedia, the Tarot of Portmeirion, HarperCollins' One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, Pomegranate's One Letter Words Knowledge Cards Deck, and Weiser Books' Magic Words: A Dictionary.  He is co-author of New Star Books' Franzlations: A Guide to the Imaginary Parables.  He has published dozens of articles in such magazines as Verbatim, Pentacle, Mothering, and Magic.  His work has been profiled in the New York Times, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, Publishers Weekly, The Associated Press, and dozens of others.

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